HL Deb 05 June 1991 vol 529 cc682-706

5.18 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs rose to call attention to the need to establish a permanent body to concert immediate international action in times of natural disasters; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in 1987 the General Assembly decided to designate the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. It laid down a set of goals. The decade secretariat was established at Geneva in close association with the office of the UN Disaster Relief Co-ordinator. In December 1990, the assembly asked the Secretary General to help formulate and implement public information programmes during the decade, to raise awareness of disasters and disaster prevention among the public.

It seems to be a cruel irony that over the past months there has been an almost unprecedented series of disasters in the world, either man-made or coming from natural causes or— as is so often the case— a mixture of both. There have often in the past been sudden and entirely unforeseen tragedies which have struck different countries, but few have affected such a vast number of people as has been the case this year. Indeed, one tragedy has followed on another and each one has been scrupulously portrayed on our television screens. We have seen pictures of the panic-stricken masses in Kuwait and Iraq, the typhoon in Bangladesh and the famine in the Horn of Africa. I believe that the concern of ordinary people who have watched these dramas unfold has remained constant. I do not believe they are affected by what is now called compassion fatigue; but it remains to be decided whether the political will exists among donor governments to try to prevent or to alleviate the misery of people caught up in these disasters. If anything good is to come out of the recent disasters, it must be the lessons learnt about the shortcomings in providing humanitarian aid and the growing recognition that there must be a better way of providing that aid.

In introducing the debate I wish to comment on three aspects of this subject. First, I wish to describe briefly the international reaction to this year's disasters. Secondly, I wish to refer to the long-term avoidance— I use the term avoidance rather than prevention— action that should be taken both by the international community and by the countries that are affected by these disasters to prevent such tragedies occurring in the future. Thirdly, I wish to make some suggestions on how international action can be more immediately and effectively co-ordinated to provide the maximum succour in times of disaster. My third point is most directly focused on the Motion before us.

The three disaster areas I wish to discuss comprise the Gulf, Bangladesh and Africa. I include the Kurdish tragedy in my remarks on the Gulf although it cannot be described as a natural disaster. However, it affected relief operations elsewhere and therefore it influenced the outcome of those operations. Donor countries launched themselves into providing humanitarian assistance to the Kurds fleeing Iraq, even though that assistance was given somewhat tardily. Although the subsequent tragedy of the cyclone in Bangladesh affected a much greater number of people, it did not attract the same level of assistance. Despite the fact that the drought and impending famine in Africa was first reported to the ODA as far back as last September, the countries affected are receiving too little assistance too late. As many as 27 million people face starvation in eight African countries, two-thirds of whom are women and children. However, that tragedy has been overshadowed by the events in the Gulf and Bangladesh. The press has not generated sufficient awareness of the tragedy in Africa, as it did in 1984 when a drought and subsequent famine occurred in the Sahel countries.

There is little doubt that the UN agencies, donor governments and the public have responded to these emergencies. However, it appears these responses have been inadequate. In the first place, donor governments have provided insufficient funds in response to United Nations appeals. Africa needs 5.2 million tonnes of food aid. Some 3.7 million tonnes have been pledged, but only 1.4 million tonnes have arrived. That must mean that insufficient transport and other logistical aid has been provided. It also means that there has been a lack of inter-donor co-ordination.

Such assistance is of particular importance to countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan and Mozambique as their poverty is profound in the first place. Drought and other natural causes combined with internal conflict are part of the cause of such poverty. However, the burden of debt repayments and plummeting commodity prices are other causes of those nations' poverty. We must question the level of aid given by donor countries. I wish to quote the annual review of the OECD's development aid committee which states: The UK has a strong aid administration with lots of experience; and there is an array of institutions that are exceptionally knowledgeable about developing countries. All of which makes it all the more desirable that the British aid effort be increased".

We must appeal to the Government to establish a timetable to try to increase our present level of aid which stands at 0.3 per cent. of GNP and to revert to 0.5 per cent. of GNP. That was the level in 1979. The United Nations has asked for an aid level of 0.7 per cent. of GNP. In the early 1980s our aid budget suffered savage cuts when a certain person's ideological stance was at its height. But surely we could now increase our aid contribution as other rich donor countries have done.

I wish to discuss briefly how the ODA operates in times of disaster. I believe its disaster unit is too small to be able to cope. I know that the staff of that unit which used to comprise four people has now been expanded to nine people. Nevertheless, those people are overworked and are still unable to co-ordinate all the requests for aid and offers of aid at times of crisis. Offers of assistance from doctors, nurses and relief workers around the country have been wasted because the disaster unit's staff have been unable to process those offers.

I believe that it would be useful to establish a mobile emergency volunteer force whereby doctors, engineers and other volunteers could assist in emergencies and could be sent immediately to where they are needed. Such a volunteer force could be structured in much the same way as Mêdecins sans Frontiêres which is a most effective agency. I am sure all of us who have visited the third world countries in which that body operates have admired the services it offers. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the establishment of such an organisation in this country.

It seems extraordinary that the Ministry of Defence does not share the cost of military relief efforts with the ODA. When aircraft were used to assist the Kurdish refugees and when helicopters were sent to Bangladesh, the ODA paid the full cost of the operations. That very much depleted the ODA's budget. I hope the Minister will say why that was the case this year when in 1985 each department shared the cost of the Ethiopian airlift. I believe the German defence ministry recognises the training value of involving the military in civilian disasters. Therefore, the cost of the operations is shared between the military training budget and the aid budget.

The position of the Minister responsible for overseas development is not strong enough. That is why the Labour Party is committed to convert the ODA into a ministry as was the case under the former Labour administration. Such a ministry would be separate from the Foreign Office and it would have a Minister in the Cabinet. Consequently, the Minister would be able to put forward the third world perspective on all Government policies. Therefore, aid and relief policies could be presented in a much stronger way.

I shall now discuss the ways in which the international community could take action to prevent or to avoid disasters taking place. The poverty of the countries which suffer such disasters could be greatly alleviated through debt relief. I know many people hope that the G7 meeting in London to be held in July will approve the Trinidad terms for debt relief. Those terms represent a welcome and urgently needed initiative. I hope the Minister will comment on the Government's view on that matter. It is becoming obvious to everyone that debt servicing is a major cause of impoverishment in third world countries. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that without the resources to build dams, a network of canals, drainage schemes and cyclone shelters, the flood that has occurred in Bangladesh might easily recur within a decade

The debt-impoverished states that are suffering from famine in Africa cannot afford to alleviate that famine by purchasing grain on the international market. As regards Bangladesh, there has been insufficient long-term development aid to prepare for disasters. For example, in view of the constant risk of floods in Bangladesh investment should have been directed to establishing a water economy in the threatened areas, which are always the same areas. Transport of people and goods would then be by water. That would mean that the transport system was not always destroyed by the cyclones and floods. Since floods destroy so many crops in Bangladesh, development aid should have provided irrigation so that crops could be grown in the dry season. Investment should also go into protecting infrastructure which has post-disaster value, such as refuges in cyclone areas, boats and so on.

On my final point relating to co-ordination the question is: do we need a new UN disaster relief agency to co-ordinate international action in times of disaster? There have been press reports that both the Prime Minister and Mrs. Chalker are thinking along those lines. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. However, I believe that there are sufficient systems and structures already in existence. They may need to be rationalised and streamlined, as well as being given more resources and powers, but I do not believe that we need an additional agency.

With regard to Africa, I believe that there is a very real need for the UN Secretary General to re-establish the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa. That was originally set up in January 1985 in response to emergency needs in Africa. It was disbanded in November 1986, but on the understanding that it could be re-established if the need arose. It worked very effectively, with a directorate made up of representatives from UN operational agencies— the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the WFP—each of which had responsibility for a particular operational sector.

If the excellent report by Mr. Frank Judd of Oxfam — who, I am happy to say, is about to join us on these Benches very soon— of his trip to Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan last month is anything to go by, it is essential that that body should be re-established to draw together donor responses, both governmental — UN and European Community— and nongovernmental. Perhaps the Minister could also say what he feels about the re-establishment of the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa.

There are at present five UN agencies which relate to disasters but which unfortunately do not relate sufficiently to each other. There is the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme, UNHCR, UNDP and the office of the UN Disaster Relief Co-ordinator. This last, the disaster relief co-ordinator, is seriously underfunded and member governments have not given it sufficient power. It would seem the most appropriate to take the lead in the co-ordination of the work of the other agencies in times of crisis. It is absurd to underfund UN agencies and then to complain that they are not doing a good enough job.

During this UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction would it not seem right at least to ask for a review to be undertaken of the present operation of the UN agencies in times of disaster and a report to be made to the Secretary General?

To summarise, I believe that countries suffering the effects of natural disasters can be better assisted by the international community in terms of levels of aid, debt repayment, relief of poverty and better logistics and co-ordination. In addition, more attention should be given to the prevention of disasters.

I hope that we shall not be sidetracked into a debate about a new UN agency. I believe that we have sufficient structures. I believe that the office of the UN Disaster Relief Co-ordinator, which needs increased funding and power, should be able to carry out the role of co-ordinator. If the international community is serious in its wish to see an end to the grievous and, in many cases, unnecessary suffering in the world, such as we have seen in particular in the past few months, and if it has the political will, then the steps that I have mentioned, and others which I am sure will be put forward by other speakers in this debate, can be taken. That will lead to a better way of dealing with natural disasters. I beg to move for Papers.

5.35 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chester

My Lords, before I begin I must check that I am in order. The list of speakers names the Bishop of Chichester whereas it was I, the Bishop of Chester, who put my name down to speak. However, as I am fully robed, I think that I can get away with anything today!

I want to support this plea, which I am sure will be supported from all sides of the House as there cannot be any Member of your Lordships' House who is not concerned about the situation in the world today. A country based on Christian premises must always have a responsibility towards those in need and must respond.

All of us, and particularly in this country, have had to recognise the reality in recent months and the size of the problem that we now face. All of us in our own homes are bombarded with requests and appeals that come through the letterbox with such frequency— sometimes two or three a day. We hardly know which way to turn; but here we have a world in which not only are disasters happening with great frequency but the media are now able to bring them to our homes and our minds with a rapidity which was not possible previously.

That reality urges us towards the plea which the noble Baroness has made. With the vast increase in population in the world, the deforestation of the world and all that is happening, it seems to me that the present disasters are peanuts compared with what will be true in 10, 15 or 20 years' time. The problem is so vast that it cannot be faced either by individual governments or good agencies such as Oxfam or Christian Aid. Thus, some permanent and informed central body which can respond and co-ordinate is of pressing need now. It will be of even greater need in the years to come. Therefore, I support the proposal while recognising the sheer logistical problems of dealing with the situations which occur, and which occur with such suddenness, particularly in the case of natural disasters.

I also want to support the plea because in my view there needs to be an information balance. During the Gulf war the relatives of the people who were caught in the aeroplane which was on the ground in Kuwait at the time of the invasion were counselled by a specialist in Arab affairs. The specialist advised them to stop looking at the 10 o'clock news. The reason for that advice was that the 10 o'clock news is dependent upon the pictures that can be obtained and not upon a balance of information. Therefore he advised them only to listen to the radio because they would find more balanced reporting of the situation.

There should be great sympathy for whatever government are in power in this country at any particular time because the television tends to cause everybody to dance. At the moment the Kurds have gone off the screen, yet their need is still great. It is now Ethiopia. Next week it will be something else. Everyone demands instant and constant action with regard to the different situations that are portrayed on the screen. There is a need for a central agency not only to organise relief but to ensure that balanced information is disseminated.

Which are the most needy parts of the world at the moment? With all respect to television, which has so effectively brought disasters to our awareness, a balanced view cannot be presented through the media. An agency which has the power and ability to communicate and which is recognised by different countries would be able to orientate the way in which aid is given and directed by different nations.

In our country, as in other parts of the world, there are many different relief agencies which seek to co-ordinate activities as far as possible, but there is undoubtedly a need for improvement. It is good that we have many different agencies because they cater for different clientele in gathering funds, but their working together needs care. If it is possible to set up such a body or to develop it from the present disaster relief agencies, I hope that concern will be shown about agency representation. I hope too that there will be ecumenical representation by the churches of the world, for we too are very much involved.

Lastly, I hope that there will be an all-party accord on what needs to be done. Looking at matters now as an observer of such programmes as the 10 o'clock news, it was a great sadness that political points were sometimes made out of what aid had or had not been given. That has led to a lessening of the readiness to support one another. Nevertheless, there has been a magnificent response. Mrs. Chalker is an MP in my diocese and I greatly admire her commitment and tremendous ability to move around the world with compassion, understanding and discernment, but I do not regard her opinion as the only one to consider. It is a great pity that party points were made out of that when we should unite in doing the best that we can. I hope that the setting up of this body would be a means by which all-party representation could be involved in meeting the disasters which occur with such rapidity and which will occur with even greater rapidity in future years. I therefore support the setting up of a permanent body with my heart, my mind and my soul.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I do not know whether it will be an advantage to have a central body such as has been suggested. I do not propose to discuss that aspect of the Motion. I shall take up solely the aspect of the issue raised by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs relating to the prevention of disasters.

Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, I start by saying that we can expect many more disasters, not just in 10 years' time but within those 10 years. They are already occurring in Bangladesh. We can expect them for two major reasons. The first is the continuation and deepening of poverty. Poverty in the world is deepening. In Africa, the continent that I know best, it has become progressively worse over the past 10 years and it is still worsening. Poverty is directly associated with disasters, as we saw in Bangladesh, where the majority of people who lost their lives were in those exposed places because of their poverty. They had come down from the hills to the silt lands and it was because they were trying to eke out a living and to find somewhere to live on the coast that they caught the full force of the disaster. That is simply one instance of the way in which poverty throughout the world can lead to massive disasters. One hardly needs to refer to the great disasters that threaten the African peoples right across that continent, where about 30 million people face famine and death.

We are only just beginning to elucidate and analyse the second cause of major disasters; namely, the effect of the degradation of the environment. There is now little doubt, certainly in the fields of climatology and environmental sciences in which I mix at the end of each week at the University of East Anglia, that disasters such as we have seen in Bangladesh and the strengthening of and increase in the number of hurricanes and cyclones in the Caribbean are directly related to changes in our environmental patterns. We can anticipate without a doubt that there will be many more and probably much greater disasters in future years.

The prospect of those disasters, particularly their environmental aspects, presents us with a great challenge. That knowledge is becoming apparent just at the time when it is most important to attack the poverty of developing countries, but the great challenge is how we attack the poverty without at the same time increasing the environmental risks and menaces. How do we attack the poverty without using more energy? Where is that energy to come from? How can we expect the peoples of the third world to overcome their poverty and develop standards of living which at least maintain life without going along the same road which we have gone along and which, as we have seen, is progressively disastrous for the whole environment? That demands cuts in the way in which our rich, industrialised world uses and misuses the natural resources and elements of our planet. It demands those cuts so that poverty can be attacked in other pins of the world without multiplying projected disasters.

Some 500 million to 600 million people today live in absolute poverty, almost always on marginal or fragile land which has lost or is rapidly losing its productive capacity. There again we see facing us directly the threat of still more massive disasters. As my noble friend pointed out, we now know that the international debt crisis is a major contributory factor. The payment of interest on those debts directly prevents the attack on poverty and the attempt to underpin a new and safer form of life. There is starvation of capital; capital flow has almost dried up. Year by year we see capital, net of aid, being exported from third world countries to rich countries. It is madness that countries that suffer from famine and disaster contribute to our rich world.

But there are other underlying issues which should be brought out in a debate of this kind if we are to see with any clarity the character of the disasters that face us. Because of the inability of much land— acres of land— in third world countries to grow crops or support productivity and production, urbanisation is spreading rapidly. There are 85 countries in the world today with an urban population which is double that of 10 years ago and it is expected that by the end of the century the figures will have more than doubled again. That requires facilities and services— education, health, transport and civic services— in countries which have only just begun to learn how to maintain life itself.

There are other figures which come out of the recent United Nations report. In 1969 the developing countries imported 20 million tonnes of cereals. By 1983 that quantity had trebled. It is estimated that by the end of this century the figure will have risen to 112 million tonnes needed to be imported from the outside world; if not, starvation will inevitably follow.

Those of us who over the past 30 years have been guilty of advising third world governments on lines of economic development which have run into the sand and which, quite frankly, have proved frequently wrong have a responsibility to examine how it is possible for the international community so to shape its economic co-operation in relation to third world countries as to minimise disasters and eventually extirpate them completely.

I am encouraged by the recent report of the United Nations Development Programme on human development. I shall spend the last few minutes of my speech in suggesting that that line of development (together with others that I shall add at the end) gives some hope for reducing the scale of the disasters that we face. We need to concentrate on human development rather than on the capital intensive prestige projects which have been so much a feature of past development and which have brought the necessity for machinery and technical assistance and, above all, have provided very good salaries for Western advisers who are doing little or nothing to alleviate the desperate circumstances of the real poor: the mass of the people in the third world countries.

We need to look at basic education and primary health care. It is appalling to see that in the total aid programmes directed toward the third world today only 0.026 per cent. on average is devoted to the necessities of basic education and primary health care. The Netherlands and Sweden have each decided to provide 0.1 per cent. Perhaps the noble Earl who is to reply to the debate will make some comment on the fact that the British contribution is only 0.028 per cent. That is the aid provision that we provide for basic education and primary health care.

Only one-twelfth of the aid provided to third world countries is marked for the priority human goals. As was mentioned by my noble friend, we are still a long way off the United Nations target in overseas aid of 0.7 per cent. of GDP. Not only that, our aid has declined from over 0.5 per cent. 10 years ago (in 1979) to only 0.3 per cent. today. Of course the Government are right to say that one does not solve every problem just by throwing money at it. But these are resources and it is undoubtedly the case that a reduction in resources means a reduction in the attack on poverty. As the United Nations Development Agency is now doing, one must look at the human development, at such things as basic education and primary health care, as I said. But it is also a matter of land ownership, access to credit, income distribution and grass roots development. It is the grass roots development alone which can offer any hope of preventing disasters in the future.

There have been different periods in which the various features of human problems were recognised as global problems. After the Second World War, agriculture and industrial development were considered to be global problems which had to be tackled in order to raise the standard of living of the poor peoples of the world at least to a standard which would maintain life.

There is also the population problem and the threat of a rapidly rising population which by the end of the century will encompass 6.5 billion people. Now there is an emphasis upon the menace of environmental impoverishment. I suggest — I believe that I am in line with today's thinking— that there are three issues which are inextricably linked: the development of agriculture and industry, the limitation of population (the Indians have shown how it can be done) and the prevention of disasters in the environment. Those three issues are inextricably linked.

In linking them, whether or not it is through a new disaster agency, we must direct all our policies toward that central three-pronged end. If we fail, we lead the way inevitably to desperate poverty and increasing inequalities, which mean even deeper and more frequent disasters in the future.

6 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth

My Lords, anyone who has been moved by the press and television coverage of the recent unparalleled series of disasters must welcome this opportunity to debate whether the world needs a better mechanism to respond to them. I should like to pursue the third point raised by the noble Baroness about the idea of a new body. I am tempted to follow one or two of the other points she raised.

I intervene for personal reasons. From 1981–89 I was chairman of the Disasters Emergency Committee. That is the body which brings together major British charities in joint appeals for overseas disasters, both natural and man-made. During that period we had the earlier appeals for Bangladesh, famine in Africa, and others. I worked closely not only with our own charities but with the ODA disaster unit, the media, some of the international bodies, and so on. That inevitably left certain impressions with me relating to the idea of a new body. However, I emphasise that these are personal reflections only and are in no sense, either officially or unofficially, intended to represent the views of the present members of the Disasters Emergency Committee or any British charities for whom I no longer have the right to speak.

The response of the public to appeals was usually excellent. I was filled with admiration for our aid workers and their partners on the ground whose devotion, dedication, and in many cases heroism, was remarkable. One also has to acknowledge the media. The right reverend Prelate drew attention to one problem which arose from unequal coverage. However, we need also to remember what the media — in particular the medium of television— has done to make people in this country feel genuinely a part of one world and to respond to disasters overseas. I am sure that if one went to other countries one would hear a similar story; yet in aggregate the international response has often been inadequate and insufficiently co-ordinated. In such circumstances it is always tempting to blame somebody else. The Government are always the number one target. It is tempting to blame other governments, the European Community, the United Nations or the machinery— it is always somebody else's fault. It is tempting then to argue that those bodies should change or do more.

I believe that we should consider whether the international community needs a better mechanism for getting its act together. That is quite separate from whether one gives more aid. It relates to whether the existing aid can be better deployed. I am rather more open minded about the idea of a permanent body to co-ordinate international action than was the noble Baroness. However, I hope that I shall not be thought to damn the idea with faint praise if I emphasise three points which need to be kept in mind.

First, although famine and flooding seem endemic in many areas, most disasters are in fact unique and not carbon copies. They call for rapid improvisation by people on the spot with direct knowledge of the area. Certainly there is a part to play in stockpiling relief supplies and maintaining registers of skilled people who are prepared to volunteer to go to an emergency. But anything in the nature of detailed contingency planning will usually turn out to be misplaced and may introduce a predetermined rigidity. Not only does the form of a disaster vary but, more fundamentally, the scope of a local government to respond to it varies. Thus, in some cases relief supplies have to be shipped out. In other cases the need is for money to buy supplies on the spot. That is especially so in the case of a disaster which strikes suddenly, such as an earthquake. Speed and flexibility of response, and not adherence to some predetermined idea, are absolutely crucial.

Secondly, there is very often a political dimension to be taken into account or to be circumvented. The Kurdish refugees are much in our minds. I know that the Motion of the noble Baroness refers to natural disasters but natural and man-made disasters often overlap. Anyone who has been concerned with famine relief in Africa will know how much politics have impeded relief.

With their reputation for humanitarian and non-political stances, the world's charities and the NGOs are often fairly experienced at getting round some of those political difficulties. However, a new international body— particularly if it were under United Nations auspices— would need to avoid being oversensitive or locked into the question of sovereignty and intervention.

Thirdly, and by far the most important point, we must never forget the seamless robe running between disaster prevention, disaster relief and longer term development. Prevention, whether it is by building flood defences or by helping people to grow their own food, must always be better than a cure. In the case of a disaster occurring, an immediate "fire brigade" type of operation is of little point unless it is sustained by continuing relief, rehabilitation and good administration.

That hard slog may be less glamorous to those who are media-driven in their response, but it is just as important. It is important obviously for the unfortunates who are suffering from the effects of a disaster, but it is also important in another way. We sometimes hear about "compassion fatigue". On the whole, there is surprisingly little of that. However, one aspect that might turn donors off is not the frequency of the disasters but the frequency of the same disaster leading to the belief that there is little point in helping because it will only occur again. Thus, what I call continued rehabilitation and development in the role of prevention is absolutely crucial.

I have stressed those points not to argue against a permanent body, on which I am rather open minded, but to caution against the dangers either of setting up an international bureaucracy which would slow decisions, be out of touch with the situation on the ground and rigid in its approach, or of isolating what I have called the fire brigade aspect from sustained rehabilitation and development. There is certainly a need for the former but it must work hand in hand with disaster prevention and longer term rehabilitation and development.

That does not rule out a permanent body— or at least a better organised permanent network of contacts, supplies and registers— for which there may well be a need. However, its role would have to be carefully thought through. Above all, I believe that it should be a bottom-up organisation and not a top-down one. Perhaps the right answer would be to start with either a three wise men type of operation or a round-table conference involving the international agencies, the NGOs and governments to identify the gaps in the present response to disasters before deciding how to plug them.

6.9 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I support the Motion of my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs and thank her for putting it on the Order Paper. The noble Baroness spoke of global issues, as did my noble friend Lord Hatch. I wish to speak on a much narrower and smaller scale. I regard the desirable business of prevention, mentioned by some speakers, as beyond us. My profession of civil engineering is devoted to harnessing the forces of nature for the use and convenience and man, but not to control them. We do not believe that we can do that.

While both my noble friends are correct in trying to make long term preventive proposals, some of them quite far reaching economically rather than physically, I am sure that the timescale for proposals of that sort is sufficiently long for us to realise that our immediate problem is not prevention, much as that is desirable, but to respond to natural disasters when they happen, as they will continue to happen throughout our lifetime.

Natural disasters require an immediate response. There are already quite a number of agencies, both governmental and charitable, which are geared up to respond correctly. We are all aware of the vast amounts; of money, food, medical supplies, blankets and clothing which can be rushed to the site of a disaster almost immediately or, at any rate, very quickly. While all such ameliorative provisions are necessary and essential, that is not the whole story. A natural disaster is often, almost always, accompanied by a disruption of the physical infrastructure making it extremely difficult for those supplies to be produced at the places and in the amounts that are required.

In the case of earthquakes, cyclones and tidal waves, that is obvious to all. However, it is also true when the victims of a disaster have fled sometimes to a remote or inaccessible part of their own country, as happened in northern Iraq recently. The disaster there has been compounded by the natural flight of the victims. Sometimes, as in Bangladesh and northern Iraq, the army can help to restore the infrastructure or Sometimes even create it. Armies are accustomed to taking their infrastructure with them; it is part of their business. However, that is not always so. Sometimes the army is part of the problem and not the solution.

I turn from the general aspects of the Motion to a narrow and particular aspect. I wish to draw attention to one small British charity, the only business of which lies in the field of restoring or creating the infrastructure. It is known by the acronym RedR. Its title is the Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief. I believe it was founded 11 years ago by a small number of young civil engineers. I assure the right reverend Prelate that it is wholly and entirely non-political in every sense. It has a small office located in the building of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the other side of Parliament Square; it has a register of 400 names. It comprises practising engineers who are prepared to go where required at the request of various United Kingdom and international agencies at a couple of days' notice. Their employers are mainly consulting engineers who are willing to let them go.

Its latest newsletter published in March shows that it had young engineers on assignment in Malawi, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Cambodia, Tigre, India, Nepal and various other places. Since that time, at the request of the ODA, during May it sent, within two days of the request, a team of 17 engineers to northern Iraq and a few days later a second wave of 19 engineers, two of whom were Kurdish engineers with British passports. That kind of immediate response is wholly admirable, but it is on a very small scale. It can touch the edges of a disaster and assist admirably but not in a big way.

The organisation is particularly British. It is run on a shoestring, funded by contributions from the construction industry and the donations which it receives. When volunteers go abroad, they are able to deal with water supply, sewerage, road repairs, the building of roads, bridging, transport management and elementary flood control— the important matters which make habitable refugee camps and which permit supplies to get through to where they are needed.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, knows that RedR works at the request of the agencies and the ODA. It is already international in a small way in that it deals with such United Nations bodies as UNICEF and with one or two European organisations. However, its underlying concept has not yet been internationalised. I believe it is time for that to happen and I hope that that will be part of the concept so well outlined by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs.

6.16 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the timeliness of her debate and on attracting so many different opinions. Strangely for quite a small number of speakers, we have managed to acquire four or five different views on a possible solution to the problem. One matter on which we are all agreed is that it is difficult to separate man-made from natural disasters because, as my noble friend Lord Hatch indicated, very often the causes of a natural disaster have their roots in man's actions. Therefore, my noble friend and your Lordships will perhaps forgive me if I blur the lines slightly in what I say.

Research and preparation for today's debate was a depressing experience. The world seems to lurch from one calamity to another. We have hardly begun to alleviate the Kurdish problem in Iraq before we are overwhelmed by the need to rescue victims from the floods in Bangladesh, and always waiting in the wings is famine in Africa. That seems to be with us year after year.

The spotlight on these disasters seems to be in the hands of the fastest moving television crew. As it swings, our attention swings with it and is often directed away from an area which is still in need of our attention and help. The improvement in communications, which has brought so many benefits, brings us also a great responsibility; that is, the responsibility of knowledge, including instant awareness of human suffering which, not so long ago, would have been just an horrific story by the time we finally learnt about it.

As the right reverend Prelate said, increasing populations add another dimension to the problem. This growth means that, in any given incident, many more people are likely to be involved. That makes the task of rescue and rehabilitation correspondingly more difficult.

Therefore, there is a need for an organisation capable of quick response to sudden needs to minimise suffering and to start recovery before disease and hunger make the task even harder. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, argues that those on the spot know best what to do. I am sure in many cases that that is so. However, those on the spot may themselves be victims of the disaster and therefore outside help is essential.

Such an organisation would ensure the availability of resources even for less "popular" areas. As we have heard from other speakers, giving may be influenced by religion, politics or, these days, public presentation. Justice demands that even-handedness should at least be attempted. An international organisation could iron out differences of approach and, since it could tap into voluntary as well as statutory sources, it could make better use of both. It would also prevent any one type of disaster suffering as a result of "compassion fatigue" as it was termed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt.

To an extent the funding of such an arrangement already exists. Most developed countries devote a portion of their wealth to international aid. It is said that the UK contribution is not enough. That may be so but I do not feel that that is an argument for today's debate. The principle of contribution is established and today's debate is concerned with the mechanics of distribution and rescue.

It is physically possible to have such an international force. If we can have a quick response resource for fighting wars— the United Kingdom recently expressed its satisfaction that its future part in NATO is to be that of a quick response force— surely much the same kind of system could be used in the war against disasters.

The noble Lord, Lord Howie, gave a most interesting illustration of how expert help can be organised. He gave us an idea of how more specialised help of that kind could be made available. As he said, his RedR organisation is still only known in this country. If it were known on an international scale it would be extremely valuable.

The United Nations is the obvious base for such an exercise. The Gulf War proved that the UN could be a coherent force when required. I understand that there have been criticisms of its international aid efforts so far. Whatever the subsequent criticisms in relation to the Iraqi leadership, during the Gulf War the organisation met the crisis squarely when needed and proved that a world force for peace was not just a pipe dream. I believe that the United Nations could create a world force to fight poverty and human suffering with as much success as it prosecuted the Gulf War.

There would have to be a strategic availability of vital equipment; for example, in every recent crisis the availability of helicopters was a necessity. Whether those disasters were man made or natural the cry was always for helicopters, linked to a planned system for obtaining supplies. Above all the existence of a body whose duty it was to ensure continuity of support even when the event had been pushed out of the headlines, and which could make balanced judgments on the distribution of resources in relation to need rather than media appeal, would help us to develop a truly civilised way of dealing with all disasters, whether natural or man made. I support the Motion of my noble friend; I simply wish it had been even wider.

6.24 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, like everyone else who has spoken in the debate, I join in expressing thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for initiating this extremely timely discussion. We are all conscious of the terrible conjunction of three great disasters occurring close to each other—the Kurdish refugee problem, the Bangladesh flood and the famine in Africa.

I begin by echoing the words of the right reverend Prelate in regard to the influence of the media, and especially television, on these matters. It is true that natural and man-made disasters have always been with us and always will be. It is equally true, as the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, said, that the scale of these disasters is likely to increase due to modern technology, the depredations of ecological erosion and the population explosion in the world.

The difference the television revolution has made is that these terrible disasters are brought right into our homes. I feel that it is more deeply disturbing than most of us care to admit to be sitting in a comfortable home, eating an ample supper and watching the horrors of the suffering of the victims of these disasters. Fortunately this new experience for the mass of people, certainly in the developed world, has provoked a great awakening of the world's conscience, a huge expansion of private charitable effort and a growth of effort at intergovernmental level. All that is admirable. But today's debate has revealed the need to give more thought to effective co-ordination of all those efforts.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke with great experience of the disaster emergency committee and knows first hand of the problems of ensuring effective co-ordination among the voluntary agencies, all wishing to do the right thing but sometimes getting in each other's way. There is equally a problem of co-ordination at the international level. The right reverend Prelate made a good point about the need for all countries to have machinery to provide more balanced information in order to make sensible judgments about the relative gravity of the various disasters.

It is in relation to the international side that I wish to say a few words. Like the noble Lord, Lord Howie, who made a most interesting speech, I should like to concentrate on what is in the noble Baroness's Motion; that is, the question of creating, a permanent body to concert immediate international action". I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the whole range of problems is a seamless robe. A number of noble Lords spoke generally about aid strategy. But I wish to concentrate on the need for a more effective international ambulance arrangement to deal with disasters when they happen. Seamless robe or not, it is possible to single out the need for a good ambulance service. It is the distinction between organising an effective ambulance service and the wider planning of the health service and preventive medicine.

There is no doubt that the present international ambulance service under the United Nations is inadequate. There is a lack of effective co-ordination among the various United Nations agencies. A number of noble Lords referred to the work of the present Minister for Overseas Development, Mrs. Lynda Chalker. When speaking the other day on the basis of first-hand observation of what was happening in the Middle East she said: Some of those agencies— for example, the UN High Commission for Refugees and the International Office for Migration— were getting together for the first time, and the individuals involved had never worked in the same team". The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, mentioned UNDRO, the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation, which has a special responsibility here. According to the resolution by which it was founded, it is supposed to be the focal point in the United Nations system for disaster management. Despite the dedication and hard work of its chief co-ordinator, Mr. Essaffi, it is a pitifully small, understaffed and underfunded organisation. In its last annual report, for 1990, it recorded that it had lost six of its 37 posts in the regular United Nations budget. During the two-year period on which the Secretary General was reporting, UNDRO received extra budgetary contributions from member states amounting to only 47 million dollars, yet it was involved in 117 disaster situations— around one a week. Even with limited resources, UNDRO maintains an emergency transport and warehouse facility at Pisa from which it has mounted large airlift and airdrop operations for emergency relief in Ethiopia and Mozambique.

As regards needing new machinery, I tend to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, more than the noble Baroness. It is a matter which requires serious examination. A starting point may be to see what can be done to build on the existing United Nations disaster relief organisation and whether it could be better equipped to match the magnitude of the task that it faces. Like the noble Baroness who initiated the debate, I was intrigued by the press report that the Prime Minister, converted it is claimed by Mrs. Chalker, wants the Western economic summit in July to adopt a British proposal for a well-funded and effectively organised United Nations disaster relief agency. I hope very much that the Minister can enlighten us about that and confirm the reports tonight. There is a great deal of all-party concern and agreement and there would be a warm welcome for any such British initiative.

As the noble Baroness said, the United Nations has declared the 1990s to be the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. There is a slight Orwellian ring about that. It is typical of some of the rhetoric that comes from the United Nations. Nevertheless, with the ending of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the West, the 1990s offer new hope for United Nations effectiveness in a wide variety of activities, including the one on which we are concentrating this evening. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, pertinently pointed out, the United Nations authorised effective collective military action to reverse Iraq's aggression against Kuwait. If it can be done in the military field, perhaps it can also be done in the humanitarian field. One has been encouraged by the fact that in various parts of the third world where previously there has tended to be confrontation between Soviet and Western interests, sometimes even in humanitarian matters, there are now signs that the Soviet Union is becoming much more co-operative in international matters.

The world needs a collective civilian organisation comparable to the military operation that worked so well in Kuwait. It would also need to have a proper and comparable command structure. It would also need to have at its disposal the kind of register of specialists which the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, spoke about. The organisation could call on the appropriate specialists because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, each situation is different. It should have stockpiles of relevant supplies that can be quickly brought into use. Above all, helicopters are important in most of these situations.

It would be worth while for the British Government and the international community— I should like to see the British Government take a lead— to search for a more effective United Nations disaster relief agency. If one could find a United Nations civilian Schwarzkopf, that may be useful.

6.34 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I did not put down my name to take part in this important debate because I believed that my other commitments would prevent me from being here in time. I am sorry to say that they did not allow me to hear the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. However, what she said has been reflected so clearly in the later speeches which I have heard that I am to an extent consoled.

I do not wish to dwell for long on the causes of disasters. I was very glad to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, and the noble Lord who followed him, acknowledge that the world population problem is perhaps, taken by itself, the greatest single cause of the destruction of the environment which leads to natural disasters.

We have known for some years that the United Nations has had the machinery for attending to this vast and urgent problem. The present Government and their predecessors have done their best to use their influence internationally. I hope that the present Government will intensify their efforts to persuade other countries, including the countries that need help in the matter, to do more to stabilise their populations. Very often it is lack of means or poverty which prevents people from having contraceptives. That is a matter on which I feel the Government can persuade the more powerful countries in the world to do more.

I now turn to the methods of dealing with disasters. We should first consider our own methods and whether they offer good enough examples to the less fortunate countries. We have a very strange and paradoxical situation in this country as regards responsibility for emergencies. Under the Civil Defence Act 1948 and regulations made under it, local authorities are obliged to make preparations for wartime emergencies, but some of them refuse to do so. As regards peacetime emergencies, there is under our legislation very little obligation. There is an obligation to maintain fire and police services, but there is no obligation to plan for disasters, although, paradoxically, many local authorities do so.

For some years I have been president of the National Council for Civil Protection. This is an all-party pressure group drawn from both Houses. In turn it is a member of the co-ordinating group which brings together the association of civil defence authorities, the Institute of Civil Defence and others. The co-ordinating group has been making a very determined attempt during the past year to press the present Government to make the maximum possible contribution towards the international decade for dealing with natural disasters.

I wish to pay tribute to the efforts of my right honourable friend Mrs. Chalker in persuading her colleagues in the Government that we must play an active part in this international decade. I hope that when my noble friend Lord Caithness replies to the debate he will be able to confirm that the Government are determined to play an active part but not in the rather splendidly casual way which we generally adopt. If I may say so in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, our present methods are much more English than British. We somehow manage to jump to it when we have to, even though we have not prearranged the action that we intend to take.

We have made very substantial contributions to help countries overseas when they have needed our assistance. The Red Cross and other voluntary bodies have also been splendid. However, that is not quite enough. We must make sure that our own internal arrangements for dealing with disasters are improved and are put upon a more logical and standardised basis, and we must also make certain that our contribution towards the relief of international disasters is something which has been fully worked and that the machinery works.

6.40 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for giving us the opportunity to consider how the international community can best respond quickly to natural disasters, wherever they occur in the world. The international community recognises the need to provide relief in a whole range of humanitarian emergencies. The causes of such emergencies can vary widely. There are the natural disasters the most recent of which, and the one we still have in our minds, was the recent cyclone in Bangladesh. There is the emergency following a disaster brought about both by natural circumstances and man-induced civil conflict. We have, and are still witnessing, the results of this in the Horn of Africa. Then there are the purely man-made crises. The most topical example of this is the mass exodus of Iraqis from their own country in the past few months to escape the actions of their own government.

I listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, with his great experience, said about the seamless robe linking them together, especially in Africa. However, I propose to concentrate on the first of these, the natural disasters. I do so not because we think international action in the other two is irrelevant or indeed perfect— far from it; these areas also need our attention— but because in her Motion the noble Baroness concentrates on the important area of natural disasters alone.

Before focusing on the international response to any disaster, and following the moral that prevention is better than cure, I should like to spend a moment considering what we can do to mitigate the effect of natural disasters. This is where the aid programme by the major donors is so important. There are many areas in which we can help. I should like to highlight one area— that of the control of population. The figures present a most frightening picture. On average every 10 seconds there are 44 births, but only 17 human deaths. This amounts to an extra million people every four days. This is not only going to put a huge strain on the world's natural resources but, as the population increases, so the area of land needed for each person increases. This in turn will impinge heavily upon agricultural requirements, particularly in the developing countries.

We have already seen that the increase in population of certain developing countries has led to a substantial reduction in afforested areas. Regrettably, in many cases this has not helped, and more often than not it has led to great erosion, the loss of topsoil, a reduced ability to make a living off the same area of land as before, and thus to increased poverty. Without even following the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, down the road of climate change, it is this environmental degradation as well as the increase in the numbers of humans that will heighten the chances of a natural disaster and make combating such a disaster all the more difficult. My noble friend Lord Renton, who I was glad to note contributed to the debate, will be pleased to know that that is why our aid programme is increasingly geared towards family planning.

In 1990 the ODA spent over £21 million on activities directly related to population concerns—a 21 per gent. increase on 1989 expenditure. In addition, most maternal, child health and women's education programmes contribute to reducing population growth. We shall continue to use all possibilities to extend the availability of family planning advice and assistance. On 13th May my right honourable friend the Minister of State announced increased assistance for the. three multilateral population programmes. Furthermore, we can only but welcome the increased use of environmental impact assessments in aid projects by major donors and this is an area in which we are working hard to achieve a greater continuity of approach between the major donors.

More specifically, through aid one can provide special measures to help in the event of an emergency. Your Lordships will recall that in our exchanges on the Statement on Bangladesh on 8th May, I told the House .hat the EC is due to complete a study of flood protection measures later this year and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, quite rightly raised the matter again today. The present indications are that it would recommend a series of structural solutions and we wish to make sure that what lessons can be learnt from the recent disaster are also taken into account. We are also working with the Bangladeshis on a bilateral basis to help in farming methods and flood control to enhance protection against natural disasters.

Such measures can be extremely beneficial but will never prevent a natural disaster. When one does happen. the responsibility lies primarily with the authorities of the country affected. But where their resources are overwhelmed, either on account of their poverty or on account of the sheer scale of the disaster, public opinion has rightly come to expect a rapid and effective response. It is absolutely right for the affected country to turn to other countries and to the multi-lateral agencies for appropriate and properly co-ordinated help.

Before looking to the future, it is important to see what organisations are in place at the moment. The first place to look is clearly to the United Nations. The same arguments that your Lordships have put forward today are similar to those which led to the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation (UNDRO) being mandated 20 years ago, in 1971, to mobilise, direct and co-ordinate UN emergency relief and to co-ordinate with other non-UN agencies. It was also given the brief to study, prevent, control and predict natural disasters and is headed by a disaster relief co-ordinator reporting directly to the Secretary General. It occurred to me that this organisation bears a marked similarity to that which the right reverend Prelate wanted to be set up.

UNDRO is funded by donors, international appeals and from the UN regular budget, which in 1990 contributed about 8 million dollars. Of that the UK share is 1.2 million dollars, equating to 15 per cent. In addition, there is an emergency fund of 250,000 dollars. It has a staff of 27 based in Geneva, of whom 10 are assigned to disaster relief co-ordination. It can acquire extra staff as necessary by hiring experts on a temporary basis or recruiting personnel from the UN. It also has a warehouse in Pisa where WHO has stored 700,000 dollars worth of medical supplies for emergencies. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, rightly pointed out that it is the need to get the aid promptly to where it is required that is also important. That can be a massive logistical problem as natural disasters often occur in inaccessible areas and in the aftermath the conditions make access difficult.

The noble Baroness particularly mentioned helicopters, as did the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. Your Lordships will recall that on 8th May, on the Statement on Bangladesh, I told the House that the "Fort Grange" was on its way to play a vital role in Bangladesh and that helicopters were aboard. Alas, I have to report that because of adverse weather conditions one of the helicopters had to be ditched. Thankfully there was no loss of life. I am sure the House would like to join with me in offering praise and gratitude to the dedication and bravery of all those serving on the "Fort Grange".

UNDRO, despite the very limited funds available to it, plays a major part in distributing information on appeals and funding. But it is true that in practice UNDRO has not been able to fully carry out its mandate because of weaknesses in co-ordination, supply of information and provision of expertise. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said, that is undoubtedly an area which needs to be looked at with the greatest care in order to ensure the best and quickest response to any disaster. The fact that the work of UNDRO is not as well known to your Lordships as it should be is a salutary comment on its profile.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, that it is right to separate the role of the organisation from its funding. Therefore, we question the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, on whether the office for emergency relief in Africa should be re-established. Her Majesty's Government were strong supporters of the original and very successful office for emergency operations in Africa. Its lessons were learned and are still being used and developed by United Nations agencies in this field. Re-establishment of the office itself is not a guarantee of massive improvements in performance. Although we do not rule out the revival of the office we must be sure that it can fill a need that cannot be met by an existing body, so as to avoid duplication.

There are two other United Nations agencies that I should like to mention in this context. One is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which was mandated in 1951 to provide all types of assistance to refugees who had crossed international boundaries. Its administrative costs are financed from the United Nations regular budget and it has specific appeals for each major emergency. It too is based in Geneva and has about 600 staff: it can acquire extra specialist help as and when necessary.

The other UN organisation which is particularly well known to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, because she is its president, is UNICEF. This was founded in 1946 to provide emergency relief to children in war-ravaged countries and its mandate was extended in 1953 to embrace development assistance such as child health and welfare. As I said, we hope that UNICEF will increase its mandate further to include family planning, for the reasons which I set out earlier.

In addition to government and UN bodies, an invaluable contribution is also made to international efforts by humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Save the Children and Oxfam, almost invariably in co-operation with the United Nations. They bring not only substantial resources but real expertise drawn from their long experience with development work in the countries concerned. Also, I should not fail to mention the important part played by the Red Cross movement, notably by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in situations of conflict, and by the British Red Cross and other national societies in association with the League of Red Cross Associations. There are many others who do good work. The House benefited from the knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, who described one NGO involving engineers who are doing such an important but often unsung job.

It will be clear that a large number of agencies, governmental and non-governmental, are involved in disaster relief. Each has its separate and particular strengths, mandate and capacity to secure resources. Co-operation between them is well established both in the field and in Geneva but, following many of your Lordships' comments, one must question whether the system is working as effectively as it should. We fully recognise the need to continuously improve co-operation in order to make the best use of limited resources.

The international community faces an enormous challenge in responding to global disasters. Over the last three months we have seen the conjunction of three major disasters: worsening famine in Africa, the Iraqi refugee crisis and the cyclone which devastated parts of Bangladesh. This unique situation strained the resources of bilateral and international aid agencies alike. However, I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, say that despite these pressures, compassion fatigue had not yet set in. Clearly, Britain's own response was both swift and effective, but we are concerned to ensure that our systems and resources keep pace with the demands placed upon us by natural and other disasters. This is a high priority for the Government, which we are addressing urgently.

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear on 10th May in a speech to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference that we wish to put proposals forward in due course that will change the way the United Nations tackles these responsibilities. We are working from the base that we wish to see the United Nations retain its present leading role in multilateral disaster relief.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, we do not believe that there is need for a further new agency. It is more a question of getting the existing system to work better. We therefore hope that further steps can be taken to improve not only co-ordination within the UN system and co-operation with other agencies but also consultation and liaison with donor countries such as Britain. We are in regular contact with other donors and with recipient countries, together of course with the UN and the NGOs. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary had talks yesterday with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the executive delegate in charge of the United Nations humanitarian operation in Iraq.

I should now like to move closer to home and tell the House more about the actions we have already taken. Following the Iraqi refugee crisis, which presented almost unique problems in terms of the delivery of emergency assistance, my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development commissioned an ODA study to examine the United Kingdom's emergency aid arrangements. Again, the main purpose of the review will be to find ways of improving both the speed and effectiveness of UK disaster relief.

There is always room for improvement in this important area. One proposal the ODA will be looking at is the development of a permanent register of volunteers who can be sent out to disasters at very short notice. In the case of the Iraqi refugee crisis, the ODA sent out volunteer teams comprising engineers, doctors, nurses, civil emergency specialists and many others with experience of emergency aid operations. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that these mobile support teams are doing an outstanding job in northern Iraq. We hope to build on their success for future operations.

This is just one example of the aspects of disaster management that the ODA is now reviewing. There are many others, and we hope to announce the outcome of the study as soon as possible. In addition to our reviews of the United Nations system and of the ODA's own disaster relief arrangements, we are also looking at how the European Community approaches this activity. It surprised me that not even the spokesman from the Liberal Front Bench managed to introduce the European Community into this debate. It is important, as I know the noble Lord understands. It is clearly important that the Community undertakes a properly co-ordinated disaster aid delivery system which complements rather than duplicates what other donors do.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this most timely debate. I can assure the House that the Government will take full account of the views that have been expressed in developing their ideas and proposals in connection with this subject. When they are further advanced, we shall wish to explain them in further detail.

6.57 p m.

Bareness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. We have been most fortunate to be able to benefit from the great experience of the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Thomson. Their appraisal and the suggestions they made for possible changes were of great value. I am also glad that every speaker mentioned what I feel is such an enormously important part of this subject; that is, the prevention —I tend to use the word "avoidance"—of the disasters seen in recent months. The importance of our aid programmes cannot be overstated in trying to help countries which are constantly threatened by drought, climatic disasters, floods and cyclones. I am very happy that all speakers should have agreed on the importance of such programmes.

I was happy to hear the Minister talk about a British aid programme which involves population control. That has a very important part to play. I was not quite so pleased that he singled out UNICEF for particular comment, not in admiration of its work in primary health care and education but more concerned with its keeping out of the family planning sector. I do not think he was entirely right. UNICEF carries out its own family planning policies through health education for women, pointing out the health risks of big families both to the mothers and the children. That is one way in which UNICEF very successfully carries out its role in population planning.

I was sorry that the noble Earl did not feel that the Office for Emergency Relief in Africa should be brought back. It did serve a very valuable purpose when it was first needed in 1985, and I should have thought that the impending disaster in Africa is even worse now than conditions were in 1985. I agree with the noble Earl that there must be some overall co-ordination. However, that particular structure worked at that time and it is not being replaced in Africa at the moment. I am not sure that I agree with what the noble Earl said.

I was happy that the Minister agreed that there are various structures and machineries within the UN system. He talked about UNDRO and described its function. He agreed that its structure was not strong enough. I said that it appeared to be the obvious lead agency because of its very name. It has not been given the funding or the power and it would appear from the Minister's remarks that recently they have been reduced even more. The organisation should be strengthened and given more power and responsibility by member governments in order to fulfil a stronger role.

I am grateful to the Minister for a good response to the debate. We look forward to hearing more specific descriptions of what the Prime Minister has tantalized us with so far. We have greater confidence that the matter will be taken more seriously by the British Government. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.